New technology is often a paradox—offering increased capability but at great expense with a long ROI. Fortunately for The Boeing Company’s air vehicle design division in Mesa, AZ, its recent purchase of a selective lasering sintering (SLS) system had a very short ROI.
Within its first 5 months, the system built more than 400 prototype and actual parts for air vehicles—saving Boeing Mesa money, and lessening the likelihood of human errors during product development. Equally important, the system reduces cycle times, and minimizes or eliminates the need for part drawings and postsecondary fabrication.
SLS is an additive manufacturing process that uses a laser to sinter powdered material. The laser is aimed at material points in space defined by a 3D model, and then binds them together to create a solid structure.
Boeing Mesa uses a system from 3D Systems Corp. to make nonloadbearing parts (such as ducts and fairings) out of DuraForm, a flexible rubber-like material. Several parts are used on the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter.
“Making prototype tooling and parts, only to find out they don’t fit or work right, is rather painful,” explains Jerry Clark, manager of the air vehicle configuration design, integration and rapid development department for Boeing. “With our SLS system, we often go directly from computer data to part installation on the aircraft. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a physical 3D mockup is worth 10,000 words.”
Boeing Mesa’s primary customer is the U.S. Army, but it also sells air vehicles to foreign governments. Clark says these countries often want to add their own avionics equipment onto the vehicle. The SLS system enables quick and cost-effective customization, which, in this case, involves reconfiguring the cooling system and associated ducting.
In the near future, Boeing Mesa hopes to make load-bearing parts out of DuraForm. The manufacturer requires these parts to undergo a variety of tests, including tensile strength, heat resistance, fatigue, material consistency and resistance to moisture and various fungi.
Clark says the department also is exploring the use of DuraForm parts to fill limited-production orders. Boeing customers purchase 40 or 50 aircraft a year, but the manufacturer only has to make three or four cooling ducts per aircraft. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to spend the time or money producing expensive tooling and performing multiple layup steps.
“One of our greatest challenges is getting people to understand that SLS is not just a machine for making pretty models,” concludes Clark.
For more information on SLS systems and sintering materials, call 803-326-3900 or visit www.3dsystems.com.